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Self Portraits


My brother recently gave me a stack of family papers, including some of my early artwork that my father had, apparently, saved. In the stack were two drawings I did of myself in college and in the early 80's, from the look of them. I wonder how many self portraits are done because no one else was willing to sit still long enough for a likeness to be finished.

I can see in the first drawing the tendency I still have--to draw the eyes too large, and too close to the top of the head. My college art professor used to tell me, "You're drawing out of your cliches! Draw what you see." It was a hard lesson. The pictures in my head kept getting in the way of what was in front of me. At the time of this rendering, I was looking everywhere for answers (as was every other eighteen year old) and the eyes assumed an added emphasis and were very close to the top of everything. In Egyptian art with its hierarchical system of proportion, that's how it works: things assume unnatural sizes based on their relative importance. Maybe something like that is behind the tendency in amateur art to draw oversized heads and eyes.

Someone once told me that the secret to good singing was the singer's ability to listen. By the same token, one secret to good drawing is the ability to see, to observe accurately. I was working on that, here, and in the drawings that follow.

The second drawing shows me in my "tuck in all the loose ends" stage of life. No stray hairs on this lady, thank you very much. I just want to say, I have never been as neat as this portrait makes me. It reminds me of Mannerism, a style I remember from a college art history course. Popular in the sixteenth century, the adjectives Wikipedia uses to describe it include "unnaturally elegant" and "artificial." As I recall, I drew this one at a time when I thought I knew all the answers. I could tuck in the loose ends, work a job, clean the house, teach a Bible class and have time left over to make lemonade. I was also exhausted and, I suspect, annoying.

I went and found a third drawing I remember doing in about 2002. Another exercise in seeing, drawn at a time of a difficult transition into empty-nesting. In none of these am I on a professional level--my areas of art expertise lie elsewhere--but in all of them, I'm exploring, trying to observe and record. I wished when I drew this that I had the ability to capture a perfect likeness with a single, sinuous line. But my portraits are like my approaches to cooking and many other areas of life: I make a stab at the result I want, then adjust it, and adjust it again and again until the end product either satisfies me or I recognize that it's the best I can do with the ability I've got right now. A drawing is like a lie-detector test. What's in the artist's mind runs down his arm and onto the paper. (The same is true of writing, BTW.) The pencil serves as the needle. It tells the truth about the mind-set of the person on the other end, filtered through their level of skill. That's what makes drawing so fascinating. It's the ongoing effort to tell the truth, on paper. And it sometimes reveals things we don't have the words to say.


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